Since 2003, Kathryn and Michael Graham, owners of C’est Cheese in downtown Santa Barbara, have been determined to build a commercial outlet for their passion for food and to provide a modest roof over their heads.
Michael grew up in Michigan and Kathryn in Los Angeles. They both attended UC Santa Barbara, but met during a junior semester abroad in Heidelberg, Germany. After graduation, Kathryn moved to Ann Arbor to be with Michael, who was working at the legendary Zingerman’s Deli.
They later relocated to New York City and, nine years ago, moved to Santa Barbara and opened C’est Cheese, complete with a nostalgic Midwest-style screen door at 825 Santa Barbara St.
Relying on just themselves, the then-26-year-olds went all in, believing they didn’t have much to lose. Their first year in business, they worked incredibly hard to keep the doors open at their cozy, well-stocked shop of cheeses from all over the world, cured meats, olives, candy, wine and fancy gourmet packaged foods shop-sourced at the Fancy Food Show held each January in San Francisco.
Their takeaway was that they needed the community, not just to buy cheese, but for encouragement, ideas and support. Husband and wife and business partners, they realized in those early years “that our love of cheese got us to open the doors, but the need for community got us out of bed each morning.”
Over a recent lunchtime interview, with a long line snaking out the front door, loyal patrons and newbies were queuing up to check out the couple's new addition. Several customers offered their comments and congratulations at the newly opened C’est Cheese Café.
The interior of the café is open and airy, with plenty of seating inside and out, including a community table. Specials are displayed on a chalkboard and a tempting bakery array is adjacent to the cash register as you stand in line to order your lunch.
The larger cheese section and packaged goods section will be finished in about a month, but a mini department is set up with many cheeses and refrigerated items from which to choose, along with free samples.
Anticipation of the new expansion has been taking place for more than a year as the city permitting process has dragged on. Brown paper with the C’est Cheese logo has covered the former storefront windows of Our Daily Bread, a longtime favorite that relocated to a charming space on the corner of Alamar Avenue and De la Vina Street earlier this year.
The departure cleared the way for C’est Cheese to expand its business, which now includes a bakery, café, larger cheese and meat offerings, more packaged fancy foods and a growing catering business.
At one point, the affable young entrepreneurs considered joining Marge Cafarelli at the new Public Market on West Victoria Street, but decided to stay in their present location, which is a bustling neighborhood for foodies.
Slowly and carefully, through customer service, knowledgeable employees, catering, wholesale business and bimonthly wine- and cheese-tasting events, C’est Cheese and the Grahams grew the business, in the process becoming a much-loved resource in the Santa Barbara food community on Santa Barbara Street.
Neighbors to Julienne, Panino, Sojourner Café, Handlebar Coffee House, Three Pickles Deli and the Wine Cask, among others, and with Margerum, ABC and several other wine-tasting rooms around the corner at El Paseo, the area has become a gastronomic food destination.
It was the Grahams’ desire to be a part of something larger that has driven their latest expansion.
“From one perspective, we needed to grow our business to give opportunity and growth to the amazing staff that we have cultivated over the years,” Kathryn said.
“Our passion for food extends beyond cheese and salumi. With this expansion we now have the opportunity to dive into completely new territories.”
To that end, the three components that now make up C’est Cheese are the cheese shop, the café and catering. With the extra room, the three entities are now able to establish themselves more independently.
Team C’est Cheese includes Kent Bui, the café manager formally with Tydes at the Coral Casino Beach & Cabana Club and Scarlett Begonia; cheese shop head Marsha Bigelow, former manager of the iconic Cheese Store of Beverly Hills; catering director Becca Iglesias; chef Jaime Libardi, formerly at Greens in San Francisco and the San Ysidro Ranch; and pastry chef Jocelyn Kuzminski, formerly of Elements and the San Ysidro Ranch.
Keeping a watchful eye over the lunchtime crush, Michael shared the couple’s vision.
“We are taking advantage of the natural synergy, having each business buy from and support each other,” he explained. “For example, we now roast Diestel turkey, Spanish Jambon Ibnerico or Italian prosciutto, Jidori chicken and Wagyu beef from Snake River Farms in the café, which is then used for both our café and catering menus while also available for sale, sliced to order, by the pound in the cheese shop.”
Offerings include sweet scones and kouign amann; savory hand pies, which are baked daily and available in the café; espresso and coffee from local roasters Castle Coffee Co.; and seasonal salads that utilize local produce.
C’est Cheese offers gourmet gift boxes shipped or delivered locally with specially paired wines to go in each package. Even a cheese of the month club is available. Happy hour is now available from 3 to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.
Both Michael and Kathryn’s goals from the day they opened were to never stop working to grow C’est Cheese and make it better and more special and allow them to offer even more exciting foods and experiences for the customer.
Their vision of the synergistic model was inspired by their appreciation for Zingerman’s back in Michigan, which recently was featured in the business section of The New York Times. The deli went from a sandwich shop in 1982 to a multimillion-dollar food, bakery and catalog juggernaut.
Elaborating on their business model, Kathryn noted that a customer can have a delicious breakfast and coffee on a Sunday morning, some tasty cheese and sliced salumi to enjoy at home, or pick up a beautiful platter of locally smoked salmon for a friend’s wedding shower. All these items are all available “in house” and at one location, she says.
C’est Cheese is c’est magnifique. Major yum!
C’est Cheese Market and Café, 825 Santa Barbara St., is open seven days. Click here for more information, or call 805.965.0318.